Have you ever seen the duck-rabbit optical illusion? People look at it, and some people see a duck. Others see a rabbit. There are others like it: an image may be two people talking, or a vase. Or an illusion when the artist starts drawing, you feel sure they are beginning to draw a tree, but by the time they finish, they have drawn a parrot. That is how Paul’s sermon about pagan altars feels in Athens.
Athens was full of idols. Reading through the first time, one might expect a fiery sermon against graven images. But like any great preacher, Paul saw in their idols a desire to know God. An altar marked “To an Unknown God” became his sermon illustration to lead them to the God who makes Himself known.
Paul’s sermon in Athens is different from the others Acts has shown us. These listeners did not have the common ground of Jewish faith that Paul and the other apostles often appealed to in their messages. God was more abstract to these Greek philosophers. Instead of preaching about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Paul preaches about the God who made them and put inside them the desire to know Him, “that they might seek [Him], and perhaps they might reach out and find him” (Acts 17:27).
Since these philosophers did not have the Hebrew scriptures, Paul incorporated two of their own poets into his sermon. Paul highlighted how much the Greeks and Jews had in common in their longing for God. Paul said that by raising Jesus from the dead, God assures us all that we do not have to be ignorant of our Father. And even though they stopped his sermon when he brought up resurrection, some of them did believe.
There is a lot to learn here about evangelism today. Paul knew that this audience did not share his history or faith. Instead of trying to catch them up on the entirety of the Old Testament, he starts his message where they are, with the beginnings of faith that God planted. He was sensitive to how the Holy Spirit was already moving in their poems.
People want to know God. We should all be open to seeing and pointing out the ways He has revealed Himself and draws near. It is good news that He is not far off; we do not have to feel our way to Him. Paul started with a pagan altar and shared the gospel.